Paid emergency responders sought in Shenandoah County
By Sally Voth -- email@example.com
WOODSTOCK -- New Market Fire Chief Robbie Smith said he's failing at his job.
He was one of several volunteer fire leaders to plead for paid staff during a Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors work session on the fiscal 2013 budget Thursday night.
Thirteen new firefighter/emergency medical service technicians are included in the $54 million budget proposed by Doug Walker. Shenandoah County Department of Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew had asked for 22 more employees as a means to provide "bare bones" coverage in New Market, Toms Brook, Conicville and Orkney Springs.
The 13 additional employees would cost about $700,000.
The supervisors were obviously smarting Thursday from public reaction to the proposed increased spending. Walker has suggested an 8-cent real estate take hike to balance a budget that would be about $5.6 million above this year's.
"A lot of people in Shenandoah County do not believe that we need 13 firefighters to staff New Market," District 3 Supervisor David Ferguson said. "I know it's this board's responsibility ... to provide safety and security to the citizens of Shenandoah County. There's a certain group of citizens that feel like we shouldn't be providing that."
New Market Fire and Rescue is asking for county-paid staff to provide 24-hour coverage at its station.
"Somebody's going to get hurt or killed," Smith said. "Here, about a month ago, we had a triple fatality at our first due. Was it our fault? No, I don't think so."
He was referring to the deaths of three people -- including an Ashby Lee Elementary fourth-grader -- killed in a Feb. 4 trailer fire on Smith Creek Road, just across the line into Rockingham County.
Smith said he and an engine driver arrived at the fire scene, and questioned whether they could've made entry had it been a two-story house on fire.
"Could we have done it safely?" he asked. "Absolutely not. I'm in a position where I'm failing as a fire chief. We don't have the people. More people are going out the door than are going in."
People don't have the time to volunteer anymore, Smith said.
District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli said New Market made the same request for help last year.
"We're having volunteers from other departments saying, 'No, it's not needed,'" she said.
Baroncelli said some volunteers are blaming career staff for driving out volunteers, and asked if Smith thought that was accurate.
"No, if it wasn't for the career staff, I don't know some times what we would do," Smith said. "We have a great relationship."
Baroncelli asked how the volunteers who felt like Smith could help the supervisors present the "true situation."
"I don't know, do we kill somebody, do we burn a couple houses down?" Smith said. "[Then,] they [would] wonder why the fire company didn't do their jobs. If it wasn't for the county staff we've got now, some days we wouldn't answer nothing."
Yew said Conicville and Orkney Springs had requested a staffed ambulance five days a week, and Toms Brook a staffed fire engine 24-hours a day five days a week.
Orkney Springs Fire and Rescue Chief Cletus Miller said he often is the sole provider of fire protection.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, I'm the only one on in daylight," he said.
Not everyone at the meeting supported funding more than a dozen new positions.
"From the perspective of the taxpayer, just the 13 people, the $700,000, that's a lot of money," said a Woodstock man who refused to give his name. "In 10 years, that's $7 million."
The resident, who said the previous speakers were a tough act to follow, said it comes down to a continuum of service, and wondered if there was a way to balance the coverage.
Ferguson asked Yew how much revenue an ambulance fee was expected to bring in. Yew said it's estimated to be $500,000 a year.
Those who say the county shouldn't pay for the extra firefighters should come to his fire hall, Toms Brook Fire President Richard Minton said. "I need help this weekend," he said.
"You know why they want to be a volunteer?" asked Minton, holding up a pager. "They want us to give them these so they know what's going on. We give them a pager, they never show up."
He said there are 23 EMS volunteers with his department, "but they won't run a call."
However, not all companies are struggling, Woodstock Fire Department's Scott Gray said. He said there is a risk some of the younger volunteers with his company will feel like county staff are taking "our call from us."
"If our younger generation feel that they come in there taking our calls, then what use is [it for] them to get up in the middle of the night," Gray said. "The volunteer companies that are strong, we would like to stay strong and rely on our volunteers as we can."
Yew said he didn't anticipate paid staff would be hogging volunteers' calls.
"Where we propose staffing are in very weak areas," he said. "Woodstock and Edinburg are both strong companies, but there are days when they hit some [volunteer] lulls, too."